Inadequacy and the Cleaning Ladies

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They’re back. I re-hired them after I let myself decide that it was ok to not give a damn about letting someone else clean my house. That if the funds are there, and the stars align,  I reasoned that I was keeping these women employed and I didn’t have to sweat my sons’ bathroom toilets and bed-making. They know my home, they know where stuff goes and in the future, I will likely employ them to help me purge.

So the funds are there, thanks yoga teaching, and the stars have aligned. The ladies have been back for months. What has returned with them, along with a lovely surprise I’ll get into shortly, is the sense of inadequacy and the reminder of my flagging mindfulness. At times, I’ve simply laid out the sheets on the beds to be changed. I’ve left my clean folded clothes in piles — it’s like I’m a transient in my own house: I don’t always put away my clothes. I live out of the familiar piles of cleaned shirts and undies and jeans and sock twins that are like small indicators of unfinished projects. They’re cotton archipelagos of inadequacy. What I need to do is vet out my t-shirts and gut about half of all my clothes. I have too many pairs of yoga pants.

“But there will be a funeral and I’ll need that dress.” “And that sweater to go over it.” “And those boots because I know we will go out to a bar again, one day, maybe after the funeral.” “There’s a wedding this fall…”

Lots of clothes I don’t wear anymore are tied in my former identity: corporate shill of corporate messaging. They were pricey then, nice wools, beautiful blends, “status” labels and now… I don’t wear them. I can still fit into all of it, but there’s this part of me which simply won’t move on. This part of me SO GETS MY MOTHER: that she would hang on to her gorgeous classic-hewn clothing because it never went out of style, and she was right.  Mom could rock a camel-toned cashmere sweater in May like NO ONE, other than Lauren Hutton.

I also know that clothes and books and things were important to my mother. I sense that after all her kids pushed off for lives of their own, and my father pressed on in his career, her drive to fill our rooms with things she’d never use, but things which sated her fears and sadnesses beat any fleeting sense of mindfulness or rational objective in acquiring such things. I’m sure it’s a combination of her numerous anxieties and predilections as well as a sincere interest in reading that book, or giving that gift, or using that purse, or wearing those boots that over time simply became too overwhelming to deal with. So instead of purging, she acquired more to quiet the noise. More things to hide the things she never used.

I can feel the sensations in my body: quickening pulse and a shallowness of breath when I look around my accumulation of unused or once-used items and shame myself internally for having them. I think of landfills and waste. “It’s a lot,” one of the cleaning ladies once said to me when I sighed at the house. And I think I’m relatively organized!

I don’t need 52 multicolored Sharpies, but there was a time when I did. The kids use them for school, still, but there’s this nagging sense of “USE THAT ALL THE TIME OR IT’S WASTE” mentality. I blame Costco. I’m mostly serious. You can’t buy three pairs of socks there, you have to buy six in a pack. You can’t buy 12 Sharpies, you have to get 52 — because if you buy 12 a la carte elsewhere, it’s almost as pricey as buying the bargain pack at Costco.

But the cleaning ladies come, and when they do, the house must be “in order” to a certain degree because they can’t access the table to clean and dust it if it’s covered in 52 Sharpies. I mean, they will put the Sharpies somewhere, but often their choice of placement is like a planter or a silverware drawer because they’re just here to get shit done and move on.

So here’s the surprise I’ve finally allowed myself to enjoy: when they come here, for at least the first afternoon, I will enjoy and revel in the quiet, the order, and the essence organization that reigns and it’s ok if I didn’t do much of it myself. I know I can; that’s not the point. It’s that I’ve allowed myself to let someone else do it and that I’m ok with it.

Even though I know and YOU know what’s really going on in that junk drawer, that for the moment, everything is chill and my home makes me look like I’ve got my act together. When they’re here, quietly tending to my home in a way that I certainly can, but I’ve basically abdicated, I do feel less alone. My heartbeat slows and my breath becomes mine again. It will get done. That’s the gift.

I read with great vigor A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. It’s a collection of short stories. Many of them are memoir, some are written with disdain for the client / employer, and I shuddered a little upon reading Berlin’s observations about us, knowing when we’ve had our periods, or the last time we had sex, what we’re reading, what we’re still not reading, how we’re sleeping, or if our children eat in their beds, hoard candy in their rooms, and the secrets they have, but I get that. Other stories are deep, wandering tales about love, the oceans, sex with near strangers, and marriage. It’s a wonderful book as Berlin is masterful — both succinct and dreamy — and real. You can’t hide from her, she has found you.

I think often about these women who clean my home, Flora and Linda. They are sweet and obsequious. They banter in Spanish and usher tender giggles to each other upon encountering our dogs and marveling at how much my children have grown. I’ve worked with them for eight years. I wonder about their lives, about what keeps them up at night. Shortly after my mother died, they came to clean and I thought I was going to be OK. I hadn’t let the house get too bad between their visits. But Mom had died and I was a mess.

The moment they came in the door, my eyes welled up and Flora (the older of the two) saw my face. She knew something had gone horribly wrong between our last encounter. “My mother died last week…” and I wailed and bawled and cried heaving sobs into her neck as she held me and rocked me in her arms. She’s not that much older than I am, but I have an affection for these women that goes back to my childhood as I was basically raised by my cleaning lady, Betty Sortino.

Flora’s partner, Linda came in to help soothe me. And we stood there in my front hall for about a minute until I composed myself and told them what happened. Three weeks later, Linda’s husband also died. He fell off a scaffold at his worksite and died in the ambulance. He was 36. He and Linda have three children. She took a couple weeks off and then came back to work; she has no choice as she has to feed her children and her husband is dead. I wonder about her children. When I give away clothes, I give Linda and Flora first rights of refusal. Over the years, I’ve given them clothes, desks, dressers, books, and toys.

About a year ago I learned how much these women earned from my payment to their broker. $20 per house. I was paying many times that for the fee. If clients kept their appointments, they would clean up to four houses per day. They only got paid if they cleaned and I used to flake out on their employer all the time because I couldn’t get my house ready. Each house takes about 2 hours for them to tackle.

One day, I asked them if they worked on their own and that’s how we do it now. I’ve increased their rate and I believe that my paying them outright and directly rather than through the company whence we first found them does make a difference. When I pay them directly, I am less prone to cancel because I don’t have my act together because the house wasn’t tidied in time or appropriately. They don’t judge. They are eager for the work and I am eager for the respite from the visual chaos. It’s become more of a relationship which transcends the work and I trust them completely. I respect them and they get to keep the money I pay them instead of only take home a sixth of it when I paid them through their broker. I give them extra cash for Christmas.

Each time they are here, I promise to myself that I’m going to go through my things and really sort and donate. Lighten my load. I have a neighbor who’s moving this weekend. She’s more than a neighbor, she’s become like a cousin to me. She’s leaving for Florida and I honestly hope I go see her. When she put her house on the market, I helped her straighten up — I was literally a third pair of eyes added on to her own and her young friend who’s got a real knack for spatial placement of things.

She asked me to come view and give pointers. I admit I felt a little like a white-gloved Marine Corps officer running quarters inspection, but my advice, adjustments, and insight were helpful. I was impressed by how austere her home had become. It felt like a resort property. It felt like a rental on a beach and I envied that — the lack of shit crowding everything. Yet she felt it was too sterile, too antiseptic, no “life” or “personality” in her home anymore. She was right. The house had a “tone” now, not a feeling. We all agreed that the powder room needed to feel like a “spa” so I filled her glass vases that hung on the wall with neutral tone rocks, some branches from the wispy white pine tree in her backyard and clips off the rigid birch tree in my front yard and voila. Spa.

It sold in three days. For the asking price.

I will miss her a lot. More than I think either of us realize. She has quietly supported me — unconditionally — for our entire relationship. She has never passed judgment and has been a true cheerleader in everything I’ve ever ventured. It hurts that she’s leaving, but everything was in such utterly perfect cosmic alignment — like the kind of alignment you read about — that her staying here meant spiritual coma. You don’t get the kind of opportunities, conversations, situations and challenges thrown at you the way she has and keep things as they are.

She used my cleaning ladies before putting the house on the market. They provided her with the calm and ease they provide me every time they leave my home. It’s quiet. It’s clean. When they are here, I am forced to let them work, to stay out of their way. To leave with the dogs. When I come back, things are where they belong. Or at least they’re not in the way. The inadequacy ebbs and I don’t feel like such a failure. I know I perform a lot around here, it’s in the ways you can’t often see. At the very least, I have participated in readying the house for them.

In three hours my three boys will be home. I will be teaching little kids yoga, teaching them to learn how to calm themselves, center their minds, and know they are enough. I will not think about my friend moving to Florida and I will thank Linda and Flora.

Thank you.

 

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